Allied on the Field

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Major professional sports leagues have long made a habit of exclusion, requiring a plucky hero to break down institutional obstacles and re-define league standards.

Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in Major League Baseball and paved the way for minority athletes, while tennis player Billie Jean King did the same for women defeating Bobby Riggs in 1973’s Battle of the Sexes.  This generation’s Billie or Jackie will be what the sports world desperately needs: An active, gay professional athlete.

In a world of social media, perpetual news cycles and a fixation on celebrities, the daunting task of publicly coming out has more channels of opportunity for judgment and analysis than ever. Can you imagine the tweets Jackie Robinson would’ve received, had Twitter been around when he made his MLB debut in 1947 (especially in a pre-Civil Rights world of segregation when outright bigotry was even more commonplace)?

However, straight athletes are beginning to foster a new movement of social advocacy, encouraging their closeted teammates to feel free to be who they are, and their efforts are already coming to fruition.

On April 29, 2013, veteran NBA center Jason Collins came out on the cover of Sports Illustrated. He became the first active, male, homosexual, professional athlete in any of the four major sports leagues in America.

While the NFL, NHL and MLS have a selection of outspoken straight allies, MLB and NBA players are slower to follow suit. At press time, the MLB lacks a formal LGBT advocacy endorsement from any one player. In the NBA, Kenneth Faried of the Denver Nuggets is the lone basketball player to join an LGBT ally organization. He recently signed on with Athlete Ally, but the Mirror was denied an interview by a Nuggets spokesman.

In any case, straight players in sports are slowly beginning to educate themselves and their teammates, while top equipment brands like Nike are drooling to put endorsement dollars behind the first gay players to trickle out of their closets. The world is waiting, and these allies will ensure the field, rink or court is ready for those brave players to change the industry indelibly.

Phoenix Coyotes Center Andy Miele

When Andy Miele was a junior at Miami University in February 2010, his hockey team’s 21-year-old student manager Brendan Burke tragically passed away in a car accident.

For Miele, Burke left an enduring mark — beyond their close-knit RedHawk bond, or his love of Burke’s famous hot sauce BBQ chicken dip he and his teammates chowed down on when they were in need of a home-cooked meal.

Burke was the first person Miele had ever known to come out as gay.

“That was my first time and honestly it wasn’t really a big deal,” Miele remembers. “The best part was, when he came out… it was such a relief for him.”

Miele went on to have a remarkable senior season in a Miami sweater, leading the entire NCAA in points, with 74. The five-foot-nine, 180-pound center went on to earn the prestigious Hobey Baker Award in 2011, an annual award given to the NCAA’s best hockey player.

Following his successful senior campaign, the Phoenix Coyotes snapped up the free agent Michigan native, and he made his NHL debut on Oct. 23 of that year.

Despite soaking up the pinnacle of any hockey player’s dream, playing in the NHL, Miele paused to give back.

Brendan’s father Brian and older brother Patrick were starting a social activism campaign aimed at eradicating homophobia in sports, and Miele was one of the first to cut them a check.

“I thought it was awesome, I thought it was going to be very difficult though… just because of the masculinity theme in sports,” Miele said.

Today, as Miele focuses on his career bouncing between the Coyotes and their minor league affiliate the Portland Pirates, he serves on the advisory board for the Burke’s fledgling, one-year-old You Can Play Project.

Miele takes time to educate his teammates on homophobia in sports, and sees wheels churning among the locker room.

“I educated my team in Maine on Brendan’s story, showed them videos and everything. They could see what it was and how emotional it was,” he said. “I think it really made them understand.”

NFL Veteran Chris Kluwe

When you ask former NFL punter Chris Kluwe how soon the landscape of homophobia in sports will shift to be openly LGBT inclusive, his answer is blunt: “Wait for to grow old and die.”

While his answer borders on satire, a charming facet of his astute, clever personality, his words ring true.

“It’ll probably be a generation or a generation and a half before society as a whole asks themselves why was ever an issue… same with segregation and suffrage — as the old people grow old and die, the young people grow up in a different world,” he said.

Thirty-two-year-old Kluwe is one of the most outspoken allies in professional sports. He garnered national attention in September 2012 for publishing an open letter on to Maryland delegate Emmett C. Burns, rebuking Burns for his “vitriolic hatred and bigotry” when he demanded the Baltimore Ravens silence linebacker Brendon Ayanbadejo for supporting same-sex marriage in the state.

Kluwe’s letter went viral, capturing the attention of Ellen DeGeneres and landing him in her personal Hall of Fame.

Shortly after, he became a member of social advocacy organization Athete Ally, further cementing his formal stance as an ally in professional sports.

With rumblings there is an NFL player hinging on coming out, six-foot-four, 215-pound Kluwe voices words of support.

“There will be people who don’t understand, who will never understand… their opinions don’t really matter,” he said. “They can’t look at the world through someone else’s eyes, so why let an ignorant bigot affect your life?”

The lanky, eight-year NFL veteran, who was released by the Minnesota Vikings in April, recognizes the important national platform he has access to just by playing football.

“We can make a difference. We can make a better environment for players that happen to be gay,” he said. “We can be a grouping of guys willing to say pro sports doesn’t have to be the last closet that gay players have to hide in.”

LA Galaxy Defender A.J. DeLaGarza

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In February, professional soccer player Robbie Rogers shocked sports leagues when he announced in a blog post he was gay, while simultaneously retiring.

The next month, Rogers’ former University of Maryland teammate, and current LA Galaxy defender, A.J. DeLaGarza, signed on to be an advocate for LGBT sports resource Athlete Ally.

“It's time for people to speak out … and gay athletes, you want them to come out while they're playing. Feel comfortable around the locker room,” he said of his decision to join. “I think it important for them to feel comfortable with who they are.”

DeLaGarza played soccer for one year with Rogers at University of Maryland, where they claimed the 2005 NCAA championship. Rogers left for Europe after that season, while DeLaGarza remained a Terrapin until the Galaxy drafted him in the second round in 2009.

For 25-year-old DeLaGarza, seeing Rogers walk away from a dream they mutually craved struck a chord.

“I was shocked like anybody else... Even more so than him coming out, it was him stepping away from soccer — which was his passion,” he said. “Injuries haunted him. He had to do this and get it off his chest. “

But DeLaGarza’s endorsement for LGBT equality in professional sports stems further than his friendship with Rogers. DeLaGarza is mixed race, a South American blend of Mexican, Guatemalan, American Indian, and as he puts it, “a whole bunch of stuff,” so he empathizes with a gay player’s inability to fit into a neat, socially constructed category.

In his official statement announcing his partnership with Athlete Ally, DeLaGarza stressed diversity as a driving force in standing up for LGBT inclusion in sport.

“Just accept everybody. My parents were very forceful on that,” DeLaGarza said. “No matter who they were, what color they were.”